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Two women in a department store dressing room Photo: Alexander Walter/Getty Images

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I Love Pictures of Real People on Clothing Sites

Forget models and mannequins — I’m into user-submitted photos of people who actually buy the clothes.

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We were too old to hang out at a playground and too cool for our SAT prep class but definitely not cool enough to be invited to any parties, so my friends and I made our own fun in dressing rooms. At the mall, at Target, at a particularly fantastic store called Hi Fashion that sold dirt-cheap going-out tops that made our mothers want to cry. And then there was sweet, sweet Loehmanns (RIP), with the communal dressing room that introduced my friends and I, at the tender age of 14, to women whining about muffin tops, bingo wings, and other sad food-influenced lingo carefully crafted by the patriarchy. It was where we, best of all, saw real women in clothes that they, or we, might buy.

Now, my marathon dressing room sessions are limited. Toddlers, or mine, at least, throw a wrench in that kind of fun, so I buy most of my clothes online. I’ve been pleased to find sites that help recreate some of the magic that made me love shopping in the first place. Sites that let me see clothes worn by real people with back stories and back fat who get dressed for the pleasure — not the business — of it. A dress may look its best on a model or mannequin, but it’s not giving me any of the information I want the most. How does it look when you’re sitting down? Does the fabric makes you sweat? I spend a lot of time sitting down. And sweating. Models and mannequins, not so much.

It’s the brilliance of (well-done) user-generated content. Companies who don’t just appreciate customers who share photos of themselves sitting, sweating, or mirror-selfie-ing in a brand’s clothes — they broadcast those photos right on their websites for everyone to enjoy. Rent The Runway is my favorite of these companies; for just about every dress, you can browse through several, if not dozens, of photos of women in the same outfit, accompanied by reviews sharing their triumphs, disappointments, and bra advice.

A user review on rent the runway, accompanied by a photo Photo: Rent the Runway

One of the more widely-reviewed pieces from RTR is a waist-nipping tulle midi skirt by Badgley Mischka with pretty on-the-nose Carrie Bradshaw vibes. On the model, the skirt looks fantastic with a gold crop top and her killer abs. She gazes just beyond my right shoulder as if she’s making eye contact with someone slightly more important than me. Where is she going in this outfit? To a white seamless backdrop. What is she doing in this outfit? Getting her photograph taken. I am not feeling much kinship here.

Here’s what’s happening with a handful of the 100+ women in the customer photos: The skirt, according to my new friends, screams fun. It covers up insecurities. It makes you feel like Carrie Bradshaw (see?). It is worth sizing up because someone who’s usually a 6 preferred the 8, and it’s been zipped onto bodies from under 100 lbs to over 200 lbs. And all those bodies belong to women doing things and going places.

They’re going to their daughter’s third birthday party. They’re taking engagement photos. One wore it to a New York City event and “fit right in with celebrities;” another woman wore it to church to camouflage her “post-baby baby.” This skirt has been to funerals and baby showers. (“It was a bit tight around the belly because of the bump but otherwise, loved it”). It’s been to prom, but also to chaperone a prom, “with my mother-in-law who is a principal,” which is just the kind of detail I didn’t really need but am somehow glad I have.

Photo: Modcloth

Over at Modcloth, we meet another friend who is “always nervous about ordering clothes online because they rarely seem to work out” yet still uploading her mirror selfie for the greater good — the chance to convince you, woman of any size, to try the Packing Preserves Top. “This top will make you feel wonderful” writes another one of the 784 reviewers, this one posing proudly in a soft tunic top as she convinces me to add one to my cart (or, as another shopper suggests, add three to my cart).

And on David’s Bridal’s website, you get a window into the dressing rooms in all 300 stores around the country. Want to know if the tulle flanges of the White by Vera Wang gown are going to look as lush and bloom-like as they do on the model? Check! Even in weird fitting-room light.

As the great retail scare of 2017 continues, it’s exciting to think about the brands using this moment as a chance to double down on what customers love — and what makes them pay up. Consumer reviews are 12 times more trusted than manufacturer descriptions (consider: “A keyhole cutout and eclectic neckline make this Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent dress modern” versus “When you sit the cut out opens up, so need to be careful.”). And when RTR started leaning into customer photos on its product pages, it saw conversation rates double when it came to women clicking on customer photos versus just model ones. It’s an old stat — that’s 2011 conversions we’re talking about — and yet it’s still rare to see sites fully embracing the model. J.Crew lets a bit of the fun trickle in on its product pages but opts for company-approved photos from social media; Eloquii posts tons of customer photos on its (shoppable) Instagram. But these ladies aren’t posing in front of dirty mirrors, they’re vogueing for their Instagram boyfriends. They look awesome, but it’s a little more produced, a little less fun.

In the meantime, there’s always the old-school route: dressing rooms. Group-text your friends your most awkward angles (sitting pictures: essential) for a DIY communal experience. And know what? Text them to me, too. I can’t get enough of this stuff.

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